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The Scariest Harry Potter Book Is…The Order of the Phoenix

Though not quite my favorite book, The Order of the Phoenix is definitely the scariest in the Harry Potter series. The fact that two of us raised our hands to speak for it says much, but like its doppelgänger, Prisoner of Azkaban, Phoenix’s fear is primarily psychological and therefore far more upsetting than its more externally-focused counterparts.

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We are subjected to Harry’s tormented point of view, swinging violently between moody isolation and angry outbursts. Once again he is haunted by visions which both frighten and intrigue him: Long, dark corridors and locked doors. We spend much of our time in the grimmest of all places, the House of Black, which evokes the urban gothic tradition of claustrophobic and derelict manor homes of Dorian Gray and Usher, reflecting the decline and corruption of their owners. There is the Freudian sense that lurking underneath all this former civility and propriety is madness, cruelty and evil.

Unsettling of all is that we begin to wonder this not only of the blatantly villainous Death Eaters and insane Blacks, but of our own heroes. “Is Sirius really so different from his family?” we wonder as Rowling hints at his depression and substance abuse. Harry’s peak inside the Pensieve suggests that James Potter was as bullying as Snape made him out to be. Dumbledore remains remote and indeed neglectful of Harry throughout. Harry constantly wonders, both to himself and occasionally aloud, if something has gone wrong inside him, which is of course the question of every great psychological thriller.

In the end, what elevates the fear level above even Prisoner is the book’s seeming confirmation of this terror, isolation and hopelessness. For all the doubts it raises, Prisoner ultimately affirms life, family and hope. It is a coming-together story. Order, belying its title, is about tearing apart. Harry’s authority figures and mentors (Dumbledore and Sirius especially) fail him. Though (as usual) entirely mistaken about the nature of Voldemort’s plans, Harry’s paranoia and pigheadedness inadvertently make him responsible for the loss of his godfather Sirius, his one remaining link to his family and the person he so desperately tried to save. Rowling’s postmodern narrative teaches us to second-guess what we read from even the most trustworthy of characters, but even more than usual Order urges us to remember that nothing and no one is what they seem.

umbridge3[1]All of that does not even go into the various creepy trappings which are the hallmark of every Harry Potter story, which are as rich in Order as in any other novel in the series. Few characters in popular culture have terrified readers young and old, and struck such a strangely personal chord, as that most hated of teachers, Professor Umbridge. Equipped with sadism and a false smile, she reminds us why going to school could be a harrowing experience. There is Nagini’s gory attack of Mr. Weasley, Kreacher’s creeping servility and betrayal, and of course the introduction of the utterly unhinged Bellatrix Lestrange. Order is full of characters you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley.

Now, if you enjoyed the kind of scare in Order of the Phoenix, then for psychological horror, there is nothing finer than that Stephen King’s The Shining. It’s he quintessential book that makes you wonder: “Are these terrors really happening, or is it all in my head?” Although to be honest, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version even more strongly (sorry, book purists). More recently, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane also features a young protagonist navigating a terrifying world full of even more terrifying adults.

About Katherine Sas

Katherine Sas blogs on literature, film, TV and the arts at www.ravingsanity.wordpress.com. She is an Inklings enthusiast, a die-hard Whovian, and a fan of storytelling in any medium. Kat is currently studying Tolkien and fantasy literature at the Mythgard Institute. She is the co-host of Kat and Curt’s TV Re-View, a weekly podcast on Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

15 thoughts on “The Scariest Harry Potter Book Is…The Order of the Phoenix

  1. Excellent, Kat! Dolores Umbridge is the scariest of all Rowling’s creations, as far as I’m concerned, because no one would believe such a sweet lady in a pink hat with kitten plates all over her walls could be such a sadist… and we all know someone like her, who gets away with bullying under the veneer of “helping”. That’s what’s scary, because it’s so real!

  2. This is really well done, Katherine. This would be my pick, too.

    In this gothic book we move from the overt horror of outside sources–humans, creatures, beasts, contests–to the more subtle horrors of the psyche. We have insanity, cruelty, schisms in family. We have a teacher (surely Rowling’s best and scariest villain) who tortures and destroys for pleasure.

    We have Harry discovering that his idealized, praised father, whom he looks like and hero-worships, was a callow, cruel person who abused another student for fun. And that victim now tortures Harry and others in the same way for his own pleasure and revenge. We have Harry discovering that his two favorite father figures–Remus and Sirius–don’t think it was all that bad.

    We have a large flight animal housed indoors (horrifying to me). Arthur Weasley’s bloody attack. Neville’s insane parents exposed to his schoolmates while his grandmother shames him for keeping it secret. And what is more horrifying than poor Neville’s mother giving him gum wrappers as her only availabley expression of love? And we can’t forget Percy’s cold rejection of his family and returning the Christmas gift handmade by his mother. Not to mention Molly’s Boggart incident, seeing the death of everyone she loves.

    Not to mention the creepy Ministry jaunt.

    1. I totally agree! It’s a terrifying read all the way through, and the fear goes to a much deeper and more visceral place than ever before.

  3. Having just re-read A Wrinkle in Time, possibly I’m making too vague a reference, but… there’s a scene in there where Meg is told to hold onto her anger because it will help her fight her fear.

    I think that’s why OotP doesn’t scare me like some of the other books do. It’s arguably the saddest, and there are certainly terrifying things in there–but I spend a lot of it being flat-out furious, right alongside beloved “Caps-Lock Harry”. I feel very close to Harry in this book, and very defensive of him, and very angry at all the injustice thrown at him. Therefore, horrors interior and exterior just don’t bother me like they do in CoS, GoF, or DH. Or even PS.

    That said… there are a lot of horrors in this book; good job enumerating them. The dementor attack on Dudley and Harry is one that really gets me. Little Whinging is so full of earthly brutalities for Harry, and good magic seems absent–the one bit of good magic keeping him safe there is invisible and intangible and doesn’t keep him happy–and then the very worst monsters in the magical world appear, right on the Dursleys’ doorstep. It’s one of the darkest moments in the series.

    I love it that the attempt at stealing Dudley’s soul is the jarring that finally wakes his soul into life.

  4. For me, Order of the Phoenix always was and still is the most „uncomfortable“ book in the series, the most distressing and the most stressful to read. For some reason, I don’t think of it as „scary“, even though it has Dementors, a snake attack and a teacher who likes to torture the students.

    It’s the book that made me cry most, which is scary enough in itself, I suppose. But this is more because of its underlying sadness and hopelessness, which is introduced right in the beginning when Harry sets foot for the first time in a „house of a dying person“. I only caught this reference on rereading, had I noticed it on my first reading I would have been better prepared of what to come.

    I still love it for the amount of backstory we get and all the details about the wizarding world we didn’t know about.

    1. “candy-pink cruelty”! Perfect. Not only does it describe Umbridge to a “t”, I’m using it for the name if my next punk-glam-Japanese adolescent girl band.

  5. During the course of this book, Mundungus Fletcher, who was supposed to be protecting Harry and serving in the Order, steals items from the Black House, including Slytherin’s Locket, which he sold to Umbridge (who is wearing it in DH). What makes it creepy to me is that she thought she had the right to have it and wear it, surely knowing it was a stolen family heirloom. Given her narcissistic view of herself as superior moral arbiter, this is a revealing peek into her true character.

    1. I grew up in the small town where King got the inspiration for he Shining, and had to go with my best-friend to pick up laundry in the basement of the Stanley Hotel. They’ve remodeled it now, but back then it was just as dark, dank and creepy as you could imagine. Truly one of the scariest places I’ve ever been.

  6. OotP is definitely the most uncomfortable for me too. The Dementors in the beginning were more horrifying than in PoA somehow and because they appeared in Little Whinging, it made it seem to me that nowhere was safe for Harry. Ditto on everything said about Umbridge. She filled me with rage and hatred. Molly encountering her Boggart really upset me as I felt like this was foreshadowing deaths to come and it made my heart sink. It illustrated in frightening detail how despair could grab you in these trying circumstances. I began wondering around the house when not reading in a daze, terribly worried about Harry. After DD began to ignore Harry when he was so needy, I couldn’t help but wonder about that ‘gleam of triumph’ and whether it meant DD was not on our side. The scary bits were most of all every time Harry suddenly fell into one of his dreams. The creepy halls and doors. I became increasingly nervous with each dream and more so after experiencing Harry as the snake. Awful frightening stuff. The worst moment for me was Harry raging in DD’s office after the fiasco at the Ministry. When he shouts he’d had enough, he’d seen enough and he wanted out, my heart was breaking for him and the terrible ordeal that was not going to stop. I felt horrible like I couldn’t imagine how much worse it could get. It’s a devastating book.

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